Choosing between heating and eating: British demand for emergency food aid spikes

LONDON – Demand for emergency food aid has spiked this year in Britain, a leading charity said Wednesday, suggesting low-income households’ living standards are still sliding despite the end of the recession.

The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity that operates food banks throughout the country, said in a report that just under 356,000 people received three days of emergency food between April and September — about 10,000 more than their entire 2012-2013 financial year.

Chris Mould, the trust’s executive chairman, appealed to the government to launch an inquiry into the causes of hunger in the U.K. With winter approaching, the worst may be yet to come.

“This is disturbing,” he said. “It’s not going away. It’s getting worse.”


Mould said that increasing numbers of people in Britain are living on incomes that are insufficient to cover the rising costs of food, gas and electricity, fuel, and transport. Disposable incomes have fallen, when adjusted for inflation, since the global financial crisis erupted in 2007-2008. But the price of necessities has risen — gas and electricity costs are up 30 per cent in real terms since 2007.

The trust says many people this winter will choose between “eating and heating.”

“People at food banks have started giving back food items that need cooking because they can’t afford to turn on the electricity,” the trust said in a statement.

The British Red Cross announced last week it would have 30,000 volunteers help in a massive food drive at the end of November. The Red Cross hasn’t been involved in food distribution on a wide scale in Britain since World War II.


The stress on the poor has increased since Britain’s coalition government, elected in 2010, imposed tough spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the debt. The government has cut welfare payments, forced many low-income residents to pay local government tax for the first time, and imposed a new fee for public housing tenants with spare bedrooms.

Treasury chief George Osborne has acknowledged that the austerity has proven to be hard — and that recovery is taking “longer than anyone hoped.” But the government insists the policies are a short-term necessity — and that there is no evidence welfare reforms are causing people to go hungry.

Among those struggling is Tim Day, 30, a graphic designer who is between jobs and visited one of the trust’s distribution centres at the United Reformed Church in Bromley on Tuesday. Between temporary work contracts, Day was grateful for a food supply that included orange juice, vegetables, and porridge. But he’s always worried about making ends meet.

“It’s stressful,” he said, describing the constant ups and downs that come without the certainty of a full-time job.


The numbers show a steady increase in the numbers of people needing help to eat.

When the trust’s network started in 2000, it served 600 people at one site. By 2008, that number had climbed to nearly 26,000 at 60 sites. The trust now has about 400 that operate in conjunction with churches and charitable institutions.

Britain’s government said in a statement it isn’t surprising that numbers of users would increase as the number of food banks increase.

But the trust says the increase is not linked to people learning about their services and signing up for free food. Recipients are referred by social service workers, and other professionals who issue vouchers meant to help people get through an emergency. No one is allowed to just drop in.

Gillian Guy, the chief of the national charity Citizens Advice, said that despite positive economic news in the past few months, the bureaus have recorded a 78 per cent increase in inquiries about food banks.

“For almost 75 years people have come to Citizens Advice for help with debt issues but increasingly our clients are coming to us just to put food on the table that night,” she said.